“I’ve always loved people. That’s been my talent”
Rankin in conversation with It’s Nice That
The night before I interview Rankin, I meet him at an event he is speaking at. After waiting awkwardly for a moment to say hello, jostling with models and other fashionable people for his attention, I find that Rankin seems to have all the time in the world to talk. It’s a nice surprise. As one of the most iconic photographers of the past 30 years, I would not have expected him to hang around for longer than strictly necessary.
After founding Dazed & Confused magazine (Now Dazed) with Jefferson Hack in 1991, John Rankin Waddell rocketed to fame (as Rankin) for his concept-driven, characterful portraits of celebrities such as Robert Downey Jr, Björk and Kate Moss. He captured the attitude of a whole decade with his images of 90s Britpop and even managed to snap the Queen mid-chortle in 2002. His love for mags led him to set up Hunger in 2011 and the publication is still going strong – issue 17 just hit newsstands today, with four cover stars (River Gallo, Stephen Graham, Akala and Celeste). More recently, Rankin launched his eponymous one-stop-shop creative agency to serve clients from Samsonite to Unilever and Rolls-Royce.
He’s just as generous with his time when I visit him at his Kentish Town studio the following day. He thinks deeply about things, whether it’s an idea or his responsibility as an artist, and I’m struck by how open and self-reflective he is. Sitting across from me, dressed all in black against a white leather sofa, he tells me about not fitting in with fashion, the ups and downs of his inner world and why, post-therapy, he’s no longer hurling cameras around.
INT: There’s lots to look at here: a statue of a gorilla, a demonic mask, a human skeleton – and another that seems to be of a dog – a gnome sticking up his middle finger, countless art books… Tell me more about your office space.
R: This is where I dump stuff my wife doesn’t want. I’m a bit of a hoarder. My office is shit really. I grew up in a lower middle class family (well, my parents were working class and they did well) and because of that I got anything I wanted. They wanted me to have a great life. I loved school and being part of that community. I was very coddled, almost cotton-wooled as a child. The realities of life were far away from leafy St Albans.
Because of that I’ll buy expensive-ish things but I’m not obsessive about it. The work has always been more interesting to me. I’ve spent loads of money doing stupid things, like films or books that were shit. I always thought that it was important to take risks. When people say you should never work for nothing, I’m like, what are you talking about?! I don’t understand that. I’ve worked for nothing again and again.
TV Is Boring, Dazed & Confused,
Issue 7, 1994
INT: In one interview I read you said you feel like an outsider. Surely after everything you’ve achieved you don’t still feel this way?
R: Yeah, I do feel like an outsider, specifically in the fashion industry. I love other fashion photographers’ work, but I’ve never loved the clothes enough and seeing people that are obsessed by it has made me realise that I’m not. I’m on the periphery of fashion in a lovely way. I can dip in and out of it. When I was younger there was part of me that really wanted it. I was desperate to be a fashion photographer like David Bailey or Helmut Newton, but I didn’t think I was very good. I was more interested in the points that I could make with fashion photography.
I’ve never been skinny or particularly good at wearing clothes, so I’ve always felt like this is not my happy place. When I go to fashion events, I feel like a fish out of water. I don’t know what I’m doing there. Which is one of the reasons why I used to get drunk and be rowdy. There’s also a part of me that wants to be the best and I knew I wasn’t going to be with fashion photography.
That doesn’t mean I don’t do it. I really enjoy the creativity and collaboration in fashion. But I don’t feel like I’m in it. There’s pangs of jealousy about not fitting in. I don’t want to go to a party, get drunk and be a dick because I don’t feel cool. So I just don’t do it. It’s a good way of not being an idiot. People always call me a fashion photographer and I don’t understand why. If you look at my work, the most memorable is the portraiture by a mile. I’ve always loved people. That’s been my talent.
INT: How does that play out in your creative process?
R: I’ve always wanted to capture the individual, not the body. All my makeup work is about the person, rather than using the model as a canvas. That’s why I think I do good makeup work. I cast people that inspire me. I feel comfortable in beauty, because it’s portraiture meets style and art. My approach to work is very conceptual. At college I learned about conceptual art photography, and I’ve always been influenced by photographers like Duane Michals and Sally Mann. So I decided to combine conceptual art photography with fashion.
I can’t draw much, I think about things. One of my exes said, “Rankin never wants to do anything unless it’s an idea.” Sometimes the ideas were shit, but they were always ideas. If I was doing a trend story or a denim story, for example, I’d always try to bring ideas into them.
Stephen Graham, Hunger Issue 7, 2014
INT: You seem to be quite self-critical. At what point in your career have you experienced the most self-doubt?
R: Good question. I think everybody goes up and down. So I imagine my career like that [makes a wave motion with his hand]. I’ve had lots of moments of feeling inadequate, even now I can look at work and think that’s shit. I’ve learned to not always listen to myself when I’m in that place and just push on through. I was very arrogant and confident from the early 90s through to around 2002, and then I probably had these massive moments of doubt around being an imposter, like someone was going to catch me.
Then I became calmer as a person. I got married and stopped going out and going nuts at the weekends. Even though I was always a workaholic as opposed to a party animal, going out did make me go up and down because I was taking drugs. Once I stopped doing that, I started to feel more comfortable. Then I gave up on fashion and it was great, like a monkey off my shoulders.
“People always call me a fashion photographer and I don’t understand why.”
I also started doing therapy about four years ago and that really helped. But I still have days. In fact, on Monday I was in a dark, dark mood, thinking, why am I doing this? I have achieved enough. I’ve always said, I’m 51 per cent love myself, 49 per cent hate myself. I am very up and down, either very insular and closed or very open and fun. The problem is that people want to pull me out of it when I’m down and they can’t. I’ll still be professional, but I’ll just be like, dark.
INT: How have those ups and downs affected your creativity?
R: It was more about me. I’ve never had a problem with creativity. I’ve gone through bits when I’m a bit dry, but I’ve got teams. That’s when I’m really creative, when people are pushing me and asking me questions. That’s my happy place. I love teams.
My project Destroy Rankin probably came from my self doubt. I was feeling the responsibility of creating these images of perfection. I did it first for a youth music charity [Youth Music!]. I thought that music was a good way to talk to kids about how they see themselves. I wanted to show them that the icons they want to be are just people. So I got these musicians to take my pictures and destroy them, or do their own versions of them.
Feel It, Dazed & Confused,
Issue 63, 2000
INT: Do you still feel that sense of responsibility for the images you’re putting out there?
R: Of course. When you’re creating a fashion image, you can be talking to millions of people. And when I’m doing a beauty image, I know that kids are looking at it. Of course you feel responsibility, there’s no way you can’t. And that’s why I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about [smartphone camera] filters, because they’re gamifying people’s personal development. You press a button and your eyes get bigger. Everything is about accentuating features in a certain way. How is that healthy? That’s why I did the Selfie Harm project. I’ve been through the 90s and early noughties when the criticism of Photoshop was massive. I’m like, we’ve been here before guys! Now the audience are doing it to themselves.
INT: #MeToo has resulted in more discussion around a photographer’s responsibility on set as well as for the work they are producing. Has #MeToo affected the way that photographers shoot?
R: Probably. It took me years to work this out, but the model is not looking at you, they’re looking at the camera. I was probably 37 before I realised this. One of the things I’ll say to my assistants is, she ain’t looking at you, mate. She’s looking at the camera. And the sooner you learn that, the better.
Because it is a powerful thing having a camera. Whether you’re a woman or a man holding it, you do have power. I’ve always been about wanting to collaborate and not wield that power. But it’s very easy to be dictatorial and assertive. You’re basically telling someone what to do – “do this, do that, head down,” – so it’s very easy to slip into being someone that looks like a bit of a dick. I’ve always looked at someone’s personality and attitude first, rather than what they look like, because those are the things you want from the picture.
INT: How do you feel when you’re being photographed?
R: I hate it. But I’ve done a lot of it. Because I think it’s super important to put yourself that side of the lens to remind yourself what it’s like.
Blur, Dazed & Confused, Issue 56, 1999
INT: Has that changed the kind of dynamic you create when behind the camera?
R: I’m a bit promiscuous in the way I photograph. Whatever works, I’ll use that technique to get the best out of the person. My techniques are about being seductive, making the person feel good and being self-deprecating. It doesn’t always work. People think that people like having their photo taken, but most people don’t. Especially famous people. Maybe now with selfie culture it’s changed a bit, but before they felt uncomfortable. My job is to break that down and I’ll use whatever technique it takes. You have to be obsessive about the person, to fall for them in a way and want to get the best out of them.
INT: What makes someone really difficult to shoot?
R: When they really don’t want to be there. You can feel it immediately. Or if they hate themselves. Then it’s really hard. You feel the worst about those, because they’re the ones you want to do the best for and make them feel good.
I did this project called Rankin Live!, where I photographed 1,800 members of the general public in three months. I used all the same techniques I’d use for a magazine shoot or album cover. It’s an amazing feeling to make people feel good.
One woman, my favourite, didn’t like any picture I took of her. And it was one of those situations where you realise that you are fallible. You can’t get it right every time. She said, my nose doesn’t look like that! My forehead doesn’t look like that! I was using every trick that I knew and she said, I just don’t like it. It was like… [plunges an imaginary dagger into his chest].
That was an amazing experience. Because with people who aren’t famous there is no etiquette around what they say. If you’re in the industry, everybody has to play this game of “set-iquette”. You’ve got to be on point and be polite. I remember when I was going to LA in the 90s and they told us not to drink on set. We were like, what?! That’s all we do! That’s the set-iquette there. But real people on set will just say anything to you. And it’s great because it keeps you down to earth and not up yourself.
Tuuli's Death Mask, Alive: In The Face Of Death, 2013
The other thing is, photographing 1,800 people in three months means you just get good at it. Even if you’re shit. You learn about yourself, how people react and how to make people feel comfortable. It’s like practicing guitar, if you do it for eight hours a day for months you just learn.
INT: Does your desire to make people feel good have its pitfalls?
R: I almost feel like it’s a weakness in me. Sometimes I think maybe I should go back to shooting on film… I can make people look great, but am I being honest with them? I’m not breaking any trust, but am I being honest with myself about the way I see them? But I can’t help it. I love doing it. I’m just questioning myself. I question myself a lot. But I feel like my work is quite separate from me. You make your work for yourself, but it’s for the audience in the end. You make it for you but then you let it go. People have personal relationships with your work, which is why when people don’t like it I don’t take it personally. It hurts a bit, but it’s not personal.
INT: What about the people you’re working with – if there’s a disagreement, do you ever find it hard not to lose your cool?
R: People have seen me have tantrums. 95 per cent of the time I’ve been solid, on point and doing my job. But what people talk about and remember are the tantrums. “He did this, he did that, he threw his camera…” I’ve done all of those things. You’re in a bubble. And also people fan that. You’ve got to be super careful.
I used to get angry. I don’t anymore, after doing work on myself therapy-wise. I always thought people saw the world the same way I did. It meant that I’d have a lot of confidence in people early on, but the downside was that when people let me down I’d be devastated. I’d be very frustrated and upset. Now I get that people can just see things in a different way to me. I’ve learned to stick to my guns in a nicer way that’s less assertive and to sit back and look at something from a few different angles.
INT: What’s behind that passion, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
R: I used to love getting Dazed back and thinking, we made this. We made it! Before we thought about it, this wasn’t in the world. That was my buzz.
“I need to do a book on death. On how to die well. Death is funny.”
I remember – this is so naff – when I was about 28, I got all the covers of Dazed that I’d done and put them on the floor and was like, I can’t believe I’m living this life. There’s still a part of me that’s like that, excited for that creative process, but back then I thought, wow, we’re living our best lives right now.
I love the idea that somebody might see what you’ve made and be inspired to create something too. I hate shows, but love the idea of someone seeing the work in a mag – which is so democratic – or perhaps online or on Instagram, and thinking it’s super inspiring. I always want to make an image that’s a page stopper and make people go, woah that’s nuts! When I went to college, my tutors would try to analyse and deconstruct work but that’s not how people read photos. The reality is most people just look at a photo and get a feeling from it, it’s more immediate.
INT: Is there anything you’d love to work on that you haven’t done yet?
R: It sounds obvious, but in photography you feel restricted by two dimensions quite considerably after 30 years. So the idea of being able to make my ideas three dimensional is really interesting. You do sometimes feel constrained by a magazine or a book. There’s something romantic about being able to walk around something.
And I’ve got this strong feeling that I need to do a book on death. On how to die well. The idea has been with me for a long time and I just don’t have time to do it. But there’s definitely a book there on how to approach death and deal with it, because we don’t know how. I think it’d be good. And funny as well. Death is funny.